A Redemption Song for New York

How the Philharmonic Chose Mahler's Second Symphony for Its 9/11 Concert

The Philharmonic’s press materials for the concert make much of the fact that the orchestra played the symphony on what it calls “a similar occasion”: Nov. 24, 1963, two days after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Then-music director Leonard Bernstein, who led the orchestra on that occasion, wrote of his choice, “We played the Mahler symphony not only in terms of resurrection for the soul of one we love, but also for the resurrection of hope in all of us who mourn him.”

But as James Oestreich pointed out in The New York Times last November in a review of a book on Mahler, “Bernstein trotted out the ‘Resurrection’ for almost any occasion, including his 1,000th concert with the New York Philharmonic,” adding, of Mahler’s Fifth, that “if many Americans know the Adagietto at all, it is probably from its use in the Visconti film Death in Venice rather than from any occasion of mourning.”

“Mahler 2 means everything, and thus nothing,” Mr. Robin wrote on his blog. “Mahler 2 opens seasons, it closes seasons, it marks moments of happiness and moments of tragedy … Classical music shouldn’t be this versatile; no art should.”

But Mr. Gilbert said that the symphony tacks with subtlety between narrative specificity and open-endedness.

“It has a very explicit message—resurrection—which for obvious reasons is appropriate for the moment,” he said. “But even more than that is the lack of specificity of response that it’s possible to have to this piece. Mahler himself had a very clear program in mind when he wrote the piece but I don’t think he ever wanted to limit the way people would react to the work. He himself was so multifaceted and so complex, with his Jewishness; his conversion, probably more for expedience than for anything else, to Catholicism; his interest in folk music and the mystical side of life. It can obviously be thought of as religious, but at the end of the day it’s not only that. There’s nothing predetermined in the way people can react to it. And I like that it can be a very individual and unique interaction between the audience and the work. It leaves [open] the possibility of people dealing with their emotions in a private way.”


The title of the event—“A Concert for New York”—was the phrase that the Philharmonic’s staff had used to informally refer to it during the planning process. While the concert will be broadcast on PBS on the evening of Sept. 11, Mr. Latzky said that the orchestra’s administration consciously chose not to add to the glut of events and memorials (not to mention traffic and security) that will take place on the anniversary itself. The orchestra is counting on the fact that in the midst of sobriety and sadness, people are also going to be seeking dazzling redemption.

“The journey that the Mahler Second takes you on is what people are for the most part trying to achieve 10 years later,” Mr. Gilbert said, “going from angst and despair and questioning the meaning of life, through the third movement, which he called this kind of frustration at a meaningless life, then to the movements that celebrate better times. That’s exactly what this story is about.”



A Redemption Song for New York